Chayei Sarah – A Resident Stranger
Our Torah portion includes the deaths of both Sarah and Abraham, the former at the very start of the reading and the latter at its end. In times of challenge a person’s true character often shows through, and there are subtle hints to Abraham’s inner turmoil that are reflected during his grief over Sarah’s death.
Abraham rose from his initial grief and began to seek arrangements to deal with the burial of Sarah. He wanted Sarah to have a dignified place of rest, and he identified the cave in the field of Efron the Hittite as the ideal location. Abraham approached the Hittite people and said: “A stranger and a resident I am among you, give me the possession of a burial place in your midst so I can bury my dead from before me.” (Genesis 23:4)
Abraham’s introduction of himself is intriguing as well as confusing. His words, “I am a stranger and a resident among you,” give conflicting descriptions of his relationship to them. In our vernacular a resident is no stranger; a resident is someone who has established himself in a society for an extended period of time. Yet Abraham, while acknowledging his long-time residency, calls himself a stranger in their midst. Some commentaries interpret resident differently, translating the word as sojourner, implying that Abraham had indeed not set any roots in that place and was therefore still a stranger. It is also reasonable to view Abraham’s words as an expression of his humility before the indigenous population, making no presumption of ownership in the region. But the most simple meaning of the word remains indicative of a greater permanence.
Rabbi Soloveitchik understands Abraham’s words as conflicting, and he explains that they express the dichotomy with which Abraham lived his life. Abraham was the quintessential resident stranger, one who lived his life within a society but remained apart from that society. Abraham dug wells on behalf of the local tribes. He paid his taxes, participated in civil affairs, voted in the elections, maybe he even attended football games. He was active in every respect as a full, contributing member of his society; he was a resident. At the same time, however, Abraham didn’t act the same way as the locals. He didn’t attend their temples of worship, he didn’t believe in similar superstitions. Abraham stood apart from his neighbors not only in his beliefs but in his practice as well. His ethics remained guided by his understanding of God’s will and he was considered eccentric because of his excessive kindness and hospitality. He never fit in, he was always the “other.”
Rav Soloveitchik explains that this sums up the relationship of a Jew to his surroundings as well. Yes, we are denizens of our society. We too participate all the many elements of civil and social life. We employ other members of our society and are employed by them. We shop at the same supermarkets, exercise in the same gyms and argue over the merits of our local sport teams. But at the same time we recognize we are different. In some areas we cannot, must not, merge with the local population. We have a history and tradition that differs from others, and we have a destiny that also sets us apart. Even at our most assimilated we remain a stranger.
This statement of Abraham is not only defining, it is also prophetic. The prophet Ezekiel (25) lamented that the people wished to be like everybody else. “Like all the nations, the house of Judah,” the people proclaimed. Ezekiel prophesied that this will never be. Israel, despite its attempts, will never be a nation like all other nations, they will never blend into the societies of the world as just another nationality. The Jewish people will never succeed in building a team of Jews that will compete in the Major Leagues. Israel is distinct. Its mission is distinct and its destiny is set apart from those of all other nations. Abraham saw himself as fundamentally different from those around him, a stranger. We also need to acknowledge that in some ways we can never be the same as everyone else. We too, are destined to be strangers.
Abraham’s recognition of these differences led him to give strict instructions that Isaac should not marry into the local tribes. He recognized that the different values would negatively impact Isaac, and he could not continue Abraham’s way under such an influence. The ultimate expression of stranger-hood is seeking a marriage partner from elsewhere. To uphold and maintain the family legacy and identity Isaac could not build a home with just anyone. Isaac likewise became the stranger, who could mix with his society only up to a point.
At the end of Abraham’s life we again see a glimpse of his struggles. Abraham had a total of 8 children. His first was Ishmael and his second was Isaac. He entered into another relationship after Sarah’s passing and fathered another six children. The Torah tells us their names, and we recognize some ancient nations by those names but we know nothing else about them. Apparently Abraham saw that he was unable to impart his beliefs and philosophy to these children. He gave them gifts and sent them eastward with his blessings. When Abraham died these children did not return for his funeral. They did not relate to Abraham and his ways. Isaac and Ishmael alone buried their father in the same cave in which Sarah was buried. In his death Abraham remained a stranger.